Christopher Nkunku has resumed strength and conditioning training with RB Leipzig, after a knee injury forced him to sit out the 2022 World Cup. The 2022/23 Bundesliga season's top scorer will still miss the restart against Bayern Munich, though, putting the creative onus on Dani Olmo and Dominik Szoboszlai.
Nkunku’s 2022 World Cup dreams were shattered on the eve of the competition. A training ground clash with Real Madrid’s Eduardo Camavinga forced him to withdraw from the France squad just prior to their departure for Qatar.
Once the swelling subsided, tests revealed damage to the lateral ligaments in his left knee. Although he returned to light training on 16 January, it remains to be seen when the Leipzig talisman is fit enough to make his competitive comeback.
The France international is not someone who can be replaced like for like - he's the Bundesliga's 12-goal top scorer this season and hit a division-leading 25 for the calendar year - but Leipzig head coach Marco Rose will be quietly confident playmaking pair Szoboszlai and Olmo can fill the void.
Nkunku’s three goals in November made him a natural candidate for Bundesliga Player of the Month – and stressed how hard he will be to replace – but Szoboszlai’s name features on the six-man shortlist, thanks to his two assists and precise passing record of 88 per cent accuracy.
With Hungary failing to qualify for the World Cup, he has remained at Rose’s orders in Leipzig and steered in a brace during a 6-0 warm-up win against Polish first-division side Radomiak Radom. A regular under Rose this season – the only two games the 22-year-old have missed were due to suspension – Szoboszlai is finally delivering on the promise he showed upon arriving in Leipzig.
With seven assists this season, he ranks second in that category behind Eintracht Frankfurt’s France World Cup participant Randal Kolo Muani. He has a further two assists and one goal in the UEFA Champions League, while he scored the winning goal for his country in a 1-0 victory over England, and assisted the winner in a 1-0 triumph over Germany in the UEFA Nations League.
The Hungarian playmaker has set up a league-high 12 shots in the Bundesliga this season. Only Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City and Lionel Messi of Paris Saint-Germain have set up more shots across the first half of the season in any of Europe’s top five leagues, per UEFA coefficient.
Without a doubt, 2022 has been the former Red Bull Salzburg forward’s best year to date, counting also the three goals and four assists he supplied in the second half of last season. And he may even stand to benefit from Nkunku’s absence, taking a more prominent role in Die Roten Bullen’s attack – as his mid-season friendly goals suggest.
He scored those without the support of Olmo, who impressed for Spain at the World Cup.
Olmo got the ball rolling on their historic 7-0 triumph over Costa Rica, but it was not just his goal – Spain’s 100th at World Cups – which stood out. Olmo was omnipresent, receiving the ball 43 times (more than any other player) between the midfield and defensive line, and making the most defensive pressures (23). He then provided the assist which completed the biggest World Cup winning margin since Portugal’s same result against North Korea in 2010.
Olmo's creative juices flowed for La Furia Roja right up until their last-16 exit to Morocco, and Leipzig stand to benefit.
Injury has once again disrupted his domestic season, limiting him to just 10 appearances from the first 15, of which four were as a substitute, but he has looked not just fit, but positively revitalised while on international duty.
He shone largely wide on the left, in the same position Nkunku revelled in before becoming a more central feature – figuratively and literally – in Rose’s side; Olmo can now follow those footsteps and play a central role as Leipzig step up their pursuit of Bayern by extending their eight-game unbeaten streak.
Watch: Leipzig under the tactical microscope ahead of Bayern test
After hosting Bayern, they face two teams within the bottom three – Schalke and VfB Stuttgart – and while they will hope to have Nkunku back by then, they can be confident his injury will not set them back. Szoboszlai and Olmo can now step into the breach and keep Leipzig's momentum going.
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